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Chapter 2. SOLON (archon 594 B.C.)

[45] Solon, the son of Execestides, was born at Salamis. His first achievement was the σεισάχθεια or Law of Release, which he introduced at Athens; its effect was to ransom persons and property. For men used to borrow money on personal security, and many were forced from poverty to become serfs or daylabourers. He then first renounced his claim to a debt of seven talents due to his father, and encouraged others to follow his example. This law of his was called σεισάχθεια, and the reason is obvious.

He next went on to frame the rest of his laws, which would take time to enumerate, and inscribed them on the revolving pillars.

[46] His greatest service was this: Megara and Athens laid rival claims to his birthplace Salamis, and after many defeats the Athenians passed a decree punishing with death any man who should propose a renewal of the Salaminian war. Solon, feigning madness, rushed into the Agora with a garland on his head; there he had his poem on Salamis read to the Athenians by the herald and roused them to fury. They renewed the war with the Megarians and, thanks to Solon, were victorious. [47] These were the lines which did more than anything else to inflame the Athenians1:

Would I were citizen of some mean isle

Far in the Sporades! For men shall smile

And mock me for Athenian: "Who is this?"

"An Attic slave who gave up Salamis";


Then let us fight for Salamis and fair fame,

Win the beloved isle, and purge our shame!

He also persuaded the Athenians to acquire the Thracian Chersonese. [48] And lest it should be thought that he had acquired Salamis by force only and not of right, he opened certain graves and showed that the dead were buried with their faces to the east, as was the custom of burial among the Athenians; further, that the tombs themselves faced the east,3 and that the inscriptions graven upon them named the deceased by their demes, which is a style peculiar to Athens. Some authors assert that in Homer's catalogue of the ships after the line4:

Ajax twelve ships from Salamis commands,

Solon inserted one of his own:

And fixed their station next the Athenian bands.

[49] Thereafter the people looked up to him, and would gladly have had him rule them as tyrant; he refused, and, early perceiving the designs of his kinsman Pisistratus (so we are told by Sosicrates), did his best to hinder them. He rushed into the Assembly armed with spear and shield, warned them of the designs of Pisistratus, and not only so, but declared his willingness to render assistance, in these words: "Men of Athens, I am wiser than some of you and more courageous than others: wiser than those who fail to understand the plot of Pisistratus, more courageous than those who, though they see through it, keep silence through fear." And the members of the council, who were of Pisistratus' party, declared that he was mad: which made him say the lines5:

A little while, and the event will show

To all the world if I be mad or no.

[50] That he foresaw the tyranny of Pisistratus is proved by a passage from a poem of his6:

On splendid lightning thunder follows straight,

Clouds the soft snow and flashing hail-stones bring;

So from proud men comes ruin, and their state

Falls unaware to slavery and a king.

When Pisistratus was already established, Solon, unable to move the people, piled his arms in front of the generals' quarters, and exclaimed, "My country, I have served thee with my word and sword!" Thereupon he sailed to Egypt and to Cyprus, and thence proceeded to the court of Croesus. There Croesus put the question, "Whom do you consider happy?" and Solon replied, "Tellus of Athens, and Cleobis and Biton," and went on in words too familiar to be quoted here.

[51] There is a story that Croesus in magnificent array sat himself down on his throne and asked Solon if he had ever seen anything more beautiful. "Yes," was the reply, "cocks and pheasants and peacocks; for they shine in nature's colours, which are ten thousand times more beautiful." After leaving that place he lived in Cilicia and founded a city which he called Soli after his own name. In it he settled some few Athenians, who in process of time corrupted the purity of Attic and were said to "solecize." Note that the people of this town are called Solenses, the people of Soli in Cyprus Solii. When he learnt that Pisistratus was by this time tyrant, he wrote to the Athenians on this wise7:

[52] If ye have suffered sadly through your own wickedness, lay not the blame for this upon the gods. For it is you yourselves who gave pledges to your foes and made them great; this is why you bear the brand of slavery. Every one of you treadeth in the footsteps of the fox, yet in the mass ye have little sense. Ye look to the speech and fair words of a flatterer, paying no regard to any practical result.

Thus Solon. After he had gone into exile Pisistratus wrote to him as follows:

Pisistratus to Solon

[53] "I am not the only man who has aimed at a tyranny in Greece, nor am I, a descendant of Codrus, unfitted for the part. That is, I resume the privileges which the Athenians swore to confer upon Codrus and his family, although later they took them away. In everything else I commit no offence against God or man; but I leave to the Athenians the management of their affairs according to the ordinances established by you. And they are better governed than they would be under a democracy; for I allow no one to extend his rights, and though I am tyrant I arrogate to myself no undue share of reputation and honour, but merely such stated privileges as belonged to the kings in former times. Every citizen pays a tithe of his property, not to me but to a fund for defraying the cost of the public sacrifices or any other charges on the State or the expenditure on any war which may come upon us.

[54] "I do not blame you for disclosing my designs; you acted from loyalty to the city, not through any enmity to me, and further, in ignorance of the sort of rule which I was going to establish; since, if you had known, you would perhaps have tolerated me and not gone into exile. Wherefore return home, trusting my word, though it be not sworn, that Solon will suffer no harm from Pisistratus. For neither has any other enemy of mine suffered; of that you may be sure. And if you choose to become one of my friends, you will rank with the foremost, for I see no trace of treachery in you, nothing to excite mistrust; or if you wish to live at Athens on other terms, you have my permission. But do not on my account sever yourself from your country.

[55] So far Pisistratus. To return to Solon: one of his sayings is that 70 years are the term of man's life.

He seems to have enacted some admirable laws; for instance, if any man neglects to provide for his parents, he shall be disfranchised; moreover there is a similar penalty for the spendthrift who runs through his patrimony. Again, not to have a settled occupation is made a crime for which any one may, if he pleases, impeach the offender. Lysias, however, in his speech against Nicias ascribes this law to Draco, and to Solon another depriving open profligates of the right to speak in the Assembly. He curtailed the honours of athletes who took part in the games, fixing the allowance for an Olympic victor at 500 drachmae, for an Isthmian victor at 100 drachmae, and proportionately in all other cases. It was in bad taste, he urged, to increase the rewards of these victors, and to ignore the exclusive claims of those who had fallen in battle, whose sons ought, moreover, to be maintained and educated by the State.

[56] The effect of this was that many strove to acquit themselves as gallant soldiers in battle, like Polyzelus, Cynegirus, Callimachus and all who fought at Marathon; or again like Harmodius and Aristogiton, and Miltiades and thousands more. Athletes, on the other hand, incur heavy costs while in training, do harm when successful, and are crowned for a victory over their country rather than over their rivals, and when they grow old they, in the words of Euripides,8

Are worn threadbare, cloaks that have lost the nap;

and Solon, perceiving this, treated them with scant respect.9 Excellent, too, is his provision that the guardian of an orphan should not marry the mother of his ward, and that the next heir who would succeed on the death of the orphans should be disqualified from acting as their guardian. [57] Furthermore, that no engraver of seals should be allowed to retain an impression of the ring which he has sold, and that the penalty for depriving a one-eyed man of his single eye should be the loss of the offender's two eyes. A deposit shall not be removed except by the depositor himself, on pain of death. That the magistrate found intoxicated should be punished with death.

He has provided that the public recitations of Homer shall follow in fixed order10: thus the second reciter must begin from the place where the first left off. Hence, as Dieuchidas says in the fifth book of his Megarian History, Solon did more than Pisistratus to throw light on Homer. The passage in Homer more particularly referred to is that beginning "Those who dwelt at Athens ..."11

[58] Solon was the first to call the 30th day of the month the Old-and-New day, and to institute meetings of the nine archons for private conference, as stated by Apollodorus in the second book of his work On Legislators. When civil strife began, he did not take sides with those in the city, nor with the plain, nor yet with-the coast section.

One of his sayings is: Speech is the mirror of action; and another that the strongest and most capable is king. He compared laws to spiders' webs, which stand firm when any light and yielding object falls upon them, while a larger thing breaks through them and makes off. Secrecy he called the seal of speech, and occasion the seal of secrecy. [59] He used to say that those who had influence with tyrants were like the pebbles employed in calculations; for, as each of the pebbles represented now a large and now a small number, so the tyrants would treat each one of those about them at one time as great and famous, at another as of no account. On being asked why he had not framed any law against parricide, he replied that he hoped it was unnecessary. Asked how crime could most effectually be diminished, he replied, "If it caused as much resentment in those who are not its victims as in those who are," adding, "Wealth breeds satiety, satiety outrage." He required the Athenians to adopt a lunar month. He prohibited Thespis from performing tragedies on the ground that fiction was pernicious. [60] When therefore Pisistratus appeared with self-inflicted wounds, Solon said, "This comes from acting tragedies." His counsel to men in general is stated by Apollodorus in his work on the Philosophic Sects as follows: Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath. Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Do not be rash to make friends and, when once they are made, do not drop them. Learn to obey before you command. In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend. Be led by reason. Shun evil company. Honour the gods, reverence parents. He is also said to have criticized the couplet of Mimnermus:

Would that by no disease, no cares opprest,

I in my sixtieth year were laid to rest;

[61] and to have replied thus12:

Oh take a friend's suggestion, blot the line,

Grudge not if my invention better thine;

Surely a wiser wish were thus expressed,

At eighty years let me be laid to rest.

Of the songs sung this is attributed to Solon13:

Watch every man and see whether, hiding hatred in his heart, he speaks with friendly countenance, and his tongue rings with double speech from a dark soul.

He is undoubtedly the author of the laws which bear his name; of speeches, and of poems in elegiac metre, namely, counsels addressed to himself, on Salamis and on the Athenian constitution, five thousand lines in all, not to mention poems in iambic metre and epodes.

[62] His statue has the following inscription14:

At Salamis, which crushed the Persian might,

Solon the legislator first saw light.

He flourished, according to Sosicrates, about the 46th Olympiad, in the third year of which he was archon at Athens15; it was then that he enacted his laws. He died in Cyprus at the age of eighty. His last injunctions to his relations were on this wise: that they should convey his bones to Salamis and, when they had been reduced to ashes, scatter them over the soil. Hence Cratinus in his play, The Chirons, makes him say16:

This is my island home; my dust, men say,

Is scattered far and wide o'er Ajax' land.

[63] An epigram of my own is also contained in the collection of Epigrams in Various Metres mentioned above, where I have discoursed of all the illustrious dead in all metres and rhythms, in epigrams and lyrics. Here it is17:

Far Cyprian fire his body burnt; his bones,

Turned into dust, made grain at Salamis:

Wheel-like, his pillars bore his soul on high;

So light the burden of his laws on men.

It is said that he was the author of the apophthegm "Nothing too much," Ne quid nimis. According to Dioscurides in his Memorabilia, when he was weeping for the loss of his son, of whom nothing more is known, and some one said to him, "It is all of no avail," he replied, "That is why I weep, because it is of no avail."

The following letters are attributed to Solon:

Solon to Periander

[64] "You tell me that many are plotting against you. You must lose no time if you want to get rid of them all. A conspirator against you might arise from a quite unexpected quarter, say, one who had fears for his personal safety or one who disliked your timorous dread of anything and everything. He would earn the gratitude of the city who found out that you had no suspicion. The best course would be to resign power, and so be quit of the reproach. But if you must at all hazards remain tyrant, endeavour to make your mercenary force stronger than the forces of the city. Then you have no one to fear, and need not banish any one."

Solon to Epimenides

"It seems that after all I was not to confer much benefit on Athenians by my laws, any more than you by purifying the city. For religion and legislation are not sufficient in themselves to benefit cities; it can only be done by those who lead the multitude in any direction they choose. And so, if things are going well, religion and legislation are beneficial; if not, they are of no avail.

[65] "Nor are my laws nor all my enactments any better; but the popular leaders did the commonwealth harm by permitting licence, and could not hinder Pisistratus from setting up a tyranny. And, when I warned them, they would not believe me. He found more credit when he flattered the people than I when I told them the truth. I laid my arms down before the generals' quarters and told the people that I was wiser than those who did not see that Pisistratus was aiming at tyranny, and more courageous than those who shrank from resisting him. They, however, denounced Solon as mad. And at last I protested: "My country, I, Solon, am ready to defend thee by word and deed; but some of my countrymen think me mad. Wherefore I will go forth out of their midst as the sole opponent of Pisistratus; and let them, if they like, become his bodyguard." For you must know, my friend, that he was beyond measure ambitious to be tyrant. " [66] He began by being a popular leader; his next step was to inflict wounds on himself and appear before the court of the Heliaea, crying out that these wounds had been inflicted by his enemies; and he requested them to give him a guard of 400 young men. And the people without listening to me granted him the men, who were armed with clubs. And after that he destroyed the democracy. It was in vain that I sought to free the poor amongst the Athenians from their condition of serfdom, if now they are all the slaves of one master, Pisistratus."

Solon to Pisistratus

"I am sure that I shall suffer no harm at your hands; for before you became tyrant I was your friend, and now I have no quarrel with you beyond that of every Athenian who disapproves of tyranny. Whether it is better for them to be ruled by one man or to live under a democracy, each of us must decide for himself upon his own judgement. [67] You are, I admit, of all tyrants the best; but I see that it is not well for me to return to Athens. I gave the Athenians equality of civil rights; I refused to become tyrant when I had the opportunity; how then could I escape censure if I were now to return and set my approval on all that you are doing?"

Solon to Croesus

"I admire you for your kindness to me; and, by Athena, if I had not been anxious before all things to live in a democracy, I would rather have fixed my abode in your palace than at Athens, where Pisistratus is setting up a rule of violence. But in truth to live in a place where all have equal rights is more to my liking. However, I will come and see you, for I am eager to make your acquaintance."

1 Fr. 2 Bergk.

2 Ib. 3.

3 If these words are pressed, they contradict the precise statement in Plutarch's Life of Solon (c. 10) that the Athenians buried their dead to face the setting sun; cf. Aelian, Var. Hist. v. 14. The Mycenaean graves with two exceptions showed the dead with their heads to the east and their feet to the west. Sir W. Ridgeway (Early Age of Greece, c. 7) assumes that Plutarch and Aelian are right and Diogenes either misktaken or inaccurate in his mode of expression. A view has been put forward that there was no uniform orientation in early times (see H. J. Rose, Classical Review, xxxiv. p. 141 sq.).

4 Il. ii. 557.

5 Fr. 10 Bergk.

6 Fr. 9 Bergk.

7 Fr. 11 Bergk.

8 Autolycus, Fr. 1, 1. 12 Nauck, T.G.F. 2, Eur. 282.

9 This censure of athletes recurs Diod. Sic. ix. 2. 3 f. It was probably a commonplace κεφάλαιον in some earlier life of Solon.

10 Or "in succession," though this is rather ἐξ ὑποδοχῆς. In Plato, Hipparchus 228 B, the same thing is expressed by ἐξ ὑπολήψεως ἐφεξῆς.

11 Iliad ii. 546.

12 Fr. 20 Bergk.

13 Fr. 42 Bergk.

14 Anth. Pal. vii. 86.

15 594 b.c.

16 Fr. 5 Meineke, C.G.F. ii. 149.

17 Anth. Pal. vii. 87.

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